City, community partners launch survey as outreach workers see rise in homeless encampments

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A city effort reinforced by community partners launched this week to begin an ambitious survey of Petaluma’s unsheltered homeless population, intending to identify those most at-risk to the novel coronavirus.

The move is part of a countywide program to place vulnerable homeless people in converted dormitories at Sonoma State University, aiming to fill dozens of beds in the next few weeks.

The collaboration between the city, police, Petaluma Health Center, COTS and Downtown Streets Team is to identify at least a half-dozen individuals for the Sonoma State spots.

Karen Strolia, Downtown Streets Team’s North Bay Director, is joining a small group of COTS employees to begin the task of seeking out encampments and collecting inhabitants’ information such as age and underlying medical conditions.

“The challenge in Petaluma right now is there are so few outreach workers, so we’re joining to expand that bandwidth to help get people inside,” Strolia said.

In surrounding Bay Area counties, Strolia said her team is seeing more people living outside as shelters cut down capacity to comply with social distancing.

It’s a trend popping up in Petaluma, as well, according to COTS CEO Chuck Fernandez. He said his team of outreach employees have noticed a sudden jump in encampments across the city, and are expecting the pattern will only intensify as the coronavirus crisis continues.

“We do think we’re going to see a spike in the next couple of months because of the unemployment and the hunger right now,” Fernandez said. “We think things are going to get more severe.”

In the five weeks since the county implemented the shelter-in-place order, assistant city manager Brian Cochran said the city placed at least three portable restrooms with hand washing stations at “high-traffic” spots close to encampment clusters.

Meanwhile, COTS’ 112-bed Mary Isaak Center shelter reduced its capacity nearly 50% to ensure social distancing, currently housing between 50 and 56 homeless individuals.

Showers and to-go boxed lunches and dinners are still offered at the center, services Fernandez said may account for an increase in loitering around the Mary Isaak Center on Hopper Street in recent weeks.

Beds in the shelter are now placed at least six feet apart, and meals have become synchronized affairs involving carefully measured distancing from other diners and thorough sanitizing processes. Petaluma Health Center moved to telemedicine care, and Fernandez said a mental health therapy program has recently been created.

“We’ve implemented some pretty strict regimens for the Mary Isaak Center, and no one can come on campus without masks,” Fernandez said. “People generally really understand, and they realize it is for safety purposes.”

Although the shelter-in-place, social distancing and mask requirements are critical to curbing the spread of the coronavirus, they’ve also spawned a few new obstacles for workers like Strolia that depend on boots-on-the-ground information gathering.

While her organization is seeing more and more people outside, they’re also struggling with new impediments that make outreach more difficult. With libraries and cafes closed, she said many unsheltered individuals have no way to charge their phones. Unable to congregate, Strolia said traditional methods of disseminating information to larger swaths of the homeless population is challenging.

In the face of such restrictions amid a growing crisis, a new kind of virus-wary outreach is taking a front seat role. That, too, has taken some adjustment and education efforts.

“Initially it was off putting to the folks we were serving to see us visiting camps with masks and gloves, they didn’t understand,” Strolia said. “From their perspective, it was offensive, like they’re being called dirty. But in explaining why, that it was for safety, many people immediately accepted it.”

So far, COTS has assisted in sending six people from the center to a Santa Rosa hotel dedicated to housing members of the homeless population deemed most at-risk to the virus.

Brian Cochran said the consortium of community and government partners working in Petaluma is aiming to create a screening tool next week, and will begin to place vulnerable members of the homeless population in Sonoma State University dorms within a few weeks.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of COTS CEO Chuck Fernandez, and has been corrected.

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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